01 Artist Ai Weiwei provoked criticism when he posed in a black-and-white image that showed the artist prostrate on a Turkish beach, reenacting a viral photograph of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi.
The Chinese artist and activist made the ongoing refugee crisis the focus of his artistic output this year, even setting up a studio on the Greek island of Lesbos, where many come ashore seeking refuge. Ai’s photograph of himself lying on the beach taken in January drew detractors and champions, and for a brief moment, the struggle faced by migrants once again made headlines. But Ai ended the year to critical acclaim rather than controversy thanks to four powerful shows mounted in New York, including “Laundromat,” an installation at SoHo’s Deitch Projects, where thousands of articles of clothing, neatly draped from wire hangers on dozens of rolling racks, were arranged across the sprawling main space. The exhibition demonstrated Ai’s unwavering ability to use art as a means of activism, driving attention to political issues in a way that words and actions cannot.
02 Sotheby’s kicked off a year of significant strategy shifts when it acquired art advisory Art Agency, Partners for up to $85 million.
The auction house paid $50 million upfront to AAP partners Amy Cappellazzo, Allan Schwartzman, and Adam Chinn. An additional $35 million was tied to the performance of the trio and their subsequently formed Fine Art Division at Sotheby’s. The early January move was polarizing in the art world. Many cast it as an overly inflated acquihire and questioned whether AAP clients would concede to being shepherded towards Sotheby’s rather than having the option of also purchasing from Christie’s (providing AAP is barred from crossing the auction house divide). Pundits additionally saw the move as roiling the executive ranks at the house and precipitating the departures of several key executives. But investors appeared to like the AAP acquisition and several other moves Sotheby’s made this year to diversify its businesses and monetize a wide variety of service offerings. Aside from AAP, the auction house also acquired the Mei Moses Art Indices and leading scientific analysis firm Orion Analytical, and hired Robert Rauschenberg Foundation CEO Christy MacLear in an unprecedented but still nascent effort to court artist estates into being managed by the house. Sotheby’s stock is set to close out the year at around a 60% increase from where it stood on January 1.
03 The most prominent of the suits remaining from the Knoedler & Company forgery scandal that rocked the art world in 2011 came to an end.
Though the terms were not disclosed, in February, collectors Domenico and Eleanore De Sole announced a settlement with Knoedler and its parent company 8-31 Holdings, Inc., the remaining defendants in the case. The De Soles had sued for $25 million over their purchase of a fake Rothko from the prestigious Upper East Side gallery. The gallery reportedly settled a similar lawsuit brought by hedge fund manager Pierre LaGrange for just $6.4 million—despite the fact that he originally purchased his fake Pollock from Knoedler for $17 million. Knoedler & Company shuttered in 2011 amid allegations it had sold some $60 million in forged works falsely attributed to major Abstract Expressionists including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. The paintings came to the gallery by way of art dealer Glafira Rosales, who claimed that a secretive Swiss collector had consigned them, when in fact she had commissioned the works from a struggling Chinese artist based in Queens named Pei-Shen Qian. Two other cases remain pending.
04 After being driven from Palmyra in March, militants fighting for the Islamic State retook the ancient Syrian city again in December.
The months of conflict between the Islamic State and forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad have likely caused serious intentional and collateral damage to Palmyra, which dates back to the Neolithic era and is renowned for its ruins and antiquities. ISIS first captured the city in May 2015, holding it until March and destroying or looting priceless artifacts, monuments, and architecture, including grave damage to the Arch of Triumph, the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, and ancient tombs and towers dating as far back as A.D. 44. They also beheaded the city’s head of antiquities. Officials now fear the Islamic State will be more destructive in its new tenure in the city. This renewed threat to ancient sites comes after August brought the first ever successful prosecution of cultural heritage destruction as a war crime at the International Criminal Court—an outcome some hope will dissuade such attacks in the future.
05 The already soft market for Old Masters took a hit this year as news of a potentially widespread forgery ring gripped the art world.
Works by as many as 25 artists worth around $255 million are among those rumored to have been forged as part of the scandal. The art world was tipped off when French police seized Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Venus With a Veil (1531) in March of this year. The judge who ordered the seizure was acting on an anonymous tip that the painting, part of the Prince of Liechtenstein’s collection, was in fact, a fake. The painting allegedly originated from one Giuliano Ruffini. Ruffini, who some identify as a dealer—and who himself claims to be a collector—purchased at least six of the works including the Cranach; most originated from the collection of André Borie. Another of the initially-identified half dozen works is Frans Hals’s Portrait of a Man, through Ruffini claims that specific work did not originate with Borie. Sotheby’s had brokered a private sale of Hal’s painting in 2011 for some $10 million but in October refunded the purchase and deemed the work forged. Chemical analysis had turned up 20th century materials within the painting, purportedly from the 17th century, despite experts at the Louvre and the Mauritshuis having previously claimed it to be the work of Hals’s hand.
06 The leak of the so-called Panama Papers cast a harsh light on a number of previously secret art arrangements.
The hoard of some 11.5 million documents culled from the Mossack Fonseca law firm in Panama detailed the off-shore, though not illegal, dealings of numerous individuals from across the globe. Many of those exposed as part of the April leaks use art as part of their asset storage schemes, mostly through shell companies. Among the most interesting revelations, the Papers uncovered that the landmark sale of the Victor and Sally Ganz collection in 1997 was not actually sold by the Ganzes themselves, but instead was a speedy flip from a shell company owned by British investor Joe Lewis. The documents also revealed that Russian billionaire Dmitry E. Rybolovlev used a Mossack Fonseca-created offshore entity to allegedly place millions in art out of the reach of his divorce proceedings beginning in 2008 (his lawyer has said the allegations are “misleading”); and that a $25 million Modigliani, which has been subject of a restitution dispute, is currently owned by a Panamanian entity controlled by the Nahmad family (they have been adamant that the painting is not Nazi loot).
07 The Museum of Modern Art announced plans to temporarily shutter its architecture and design galleries.
According to the museum’s April announcement, the closures, which will include additional “medium-specific” galleries such as drawing and photography, were spurred by MoMA’s renovation with architects Diller Scofidio and Renfro (DS+R). The existing architecture and design work will be interspersed throughout the museum’s collection, which some have noted as a strategy to remove design from its current vacuum and place it within the context of the wider art world. The move also follows the trend seen toward multidisciplinary exhibitions across the art world. Still, the decision stirred debate, especially among the design community, who felt it represented a major institution turning it’s back on the discipline. In other museum-related news announced the same month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art revealed that due to a projected $10 million deficit for 2016, it would undergo a two-year financial restructuring, including layoffs. By September, the museum laid off 1.5 percent of its 2,200-plus employees and announced that it will postpone the opening of a new wing.
08 Britain voted to leave the European Union, accentuating the uncertainty that gripped the art market in 2016.
Artists and art professionals, from Damien Hirst to Anish Kapoor, almost universally advocated for the United Kingdom to remain in the EU, many signing petitions and open letters ahead of the country’s June 23rd referendum. Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans mounted a particularly stirring poster campaign for the Remain camp. But their efforts fell on deaf ears. The first test of the post-referendum market came during October’s Frieze Week sales, where London auction houses managed strong results and sell-through rates. The tumbling value of the pound has since resulted in fewer British buyers overseas—but piqued interest from those abroad. What impact will Brexit’s rebuke of London and its cosmopolitan elite have on the art created by those who tend to be a part of that group? It is difficult to say. Though the results of the referendum were clear, the ultimate outcome for the arts and for the nation is anything but.
09 Dread Scott raised a flag that read “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday” outside a Chelsea gallery, setting off a firestorm of controversy.
The self-described revolutionary artist set the flag aloft in July outside of Jack Shainman Gallery. Its sharp white text was an update of words emblazoned on a flag that flew outside the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1920 to 1938 (the NAACP flag also served as the subject of a work by the late artist Terry Adkins, first exhibited in 2007). Both the original flag and the works of art it inspired declare the dangers faced by African Americans and Latinos living in the United States. After Scott brought his work to protests against the shooting of unarmed African Americans and Latinos by police, the artist mounted it to the façade of Shainman’s West 20th Street gallery with help and support from the organizers of “For Freedoms,” an artist-run super PAC, which was also the title of the exhibition on view inside. Though many supported Scott’s piece, a critical Fox News article prompted death threats against the artist—and forced the work to be taken inside days later. Since then, the flag has flown elsewhere, from a non-profit in Cleveland to the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans.
10 Germany ratified a new law exerting unprecedented controls over the country’s art market.
The July law imposes restrictions on what artworks can be exported from the country without a license. Artworks valued at more than €150,000 and greater than 50 years of age to be sold outside of the E.U. require government approval, while artworks being moved or sold inside of the E.U. require an export license if they are valued above €300,000 and are over 75 years old. The law, championed by culture minister Monika Grütters since she took office in 2013, drew populist support following the sale of several high-profile artworks owned by state-controlled Spielbank casino including Andy Warhol’s Triple Elvis (1963) and Four Marlons (1966). The pair of paintings brought a combined $150 million when sold at Christie’s New York in 2014. However, many artists and those in the art trade strongly opposed the measures, which they said had only increased the rate that works were leaving the country. This trend, insiders suggested, will hurt not only German auction houses and galleries but also German museums, as the quality and quantity of works available to be bequeathed to their collections is seen as declining. Dealers suggested that the export restrictions, coupled with a previously instituted hike in the country’s VAT on artworks from 7% to 19%, will significantly decrease the country’s competitive advantage in the art trade.
Cover image: Photo by Rohit Chawla for INDIA Today.